Dino Stamatopoulos was spending time with Louis C.K. last summer when the two started kicking around ideas for a TV show set in a bar.
C.K. showed him an old British TV show produced like a stage play and directed by Mike Leigh. Stamatopoulos said C.K. was eager to do something similar, “shooting it like a sitcom except there’s no audience, with all the time in the world to get the performance right.'”
Stamatopoulos then headed back to Los Angeles to continue focusing on Starburns Industries, the studio he runs with Dan Harmon and Joe Russo. (Stamatopoulos, of course, played eccentric college student Starburns on Harmon’s “Community.”) But C.K. didn’t let the idea die: A few weeks later, he sent over a script.
It was the pilot episode to what became “Horace and Pete,” C.K.’s critically acclaimed 10-episode drama, set in a bar and staged like a play. C.K. and Steve Buscemi play the barkeeps at a family-owned watering hole that has been passed down from generation to generation for a century.
“It was amazing,” Stamatopoulos recalled. “Louis said, ‘I think I’m just going to do this on my own and just put up my own money and do this.’ We talked a little bit about it, he definitely thought of all these characters on his own. He had all 10 episodes mapped out completely before it was even started shooting.”
Stamatopoulos, who first met C.K. in the early 1990s when the two worked on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” eventually helped him on several episodes of “Horace and Pete.” In a note to fans announcing the end of “Horace,” C.K. thanked his friend for inspiring the bar setting. “Louis was very generous to put my name so high on the list,” he said. “I didn’t do much, but did everything I could… I was instantly in love with the show. It’s a bunch of Eugene O’Neill plays.”
We asked Stamatopoulos to give us his take on the origins of “Horace and Pete,” C.K.’s work and what might come next.
Why did Louis keep this such a secret?
Louis just likes to experiment with things. And he thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I secretly made these shows and no one knew about them, and then suddenly it just popped up on my website, and I didn’t promote it or anything and didn’t tell anyone? And no one knew anything and didn’t know what to expect from week to week? Sometimes they might be 20 minute episodes and sometimes they might be 40 minutes.” The whole thing from the beginning to the end was one big experiment. Including charging different amounts of money. At one point he wanted to start with $5 an episode and the next week go $4 then $3 and eventually to $1, and then start going up again. But then he just decided to do a couple of price changes and stick with the $3 one.
Was the idea always to cap it at 10 episodes?
That’s what he had mapped out. I think he wanted to do it like they do in England, where you do a finite series, then you go on to the next one. Or if he liked it, he brings it back in some way. I’m not sure he knows what he wants to do yet, if he wants to bring it back or not.
Perhaps bring back the same cast to perform an entirely different play?
Yeah, yeah. I notice people are saying the show got canceled. I don’t think it got canceled, its just the 10 episodes he wanted to make were done. He finished it like “Fawlty Towers.”
What was the experience like for the people in front of the camera?
I know the actors all loved working on it. It was such a fun experience. When I was there they would finish shooting halfway through the day, which is unheard of. Louis would look around and say, “I guess that’s
it, we can all go home!” It went so smoothly.
It sounds like the shoots didn’t require many takes.
I never saw more than three or four takes being done. Because there’s no audience, you don’t have to do it again and tell the audience to laugh again.
How did Louis assemble that cast?
He originally wrote the Alan Alda part for Joe Pesci. And Pesci said to him on the phone, “I tell you I love it, I think it’s great, I think you’re really talented. I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to be that famous. I think I’m going to be too famous if I do this part!” So he didn’t do it but actually it was kind of a blessing. I love Joe Pesci, but it was something that he has sort of already done. To have Alan Alda do it was sublime.
Was Horace’s last name, Wittels, a tribute to the late writer Harris Wittels?
Yes it was. Louis mentioned that to me. I know he hung out with Harris a lot, I think Harris opened for him a couple of times.
“Horace and Pete” will be submitted as a drama at the Emmys. How did Louis decide to
lean heavier on the drama side?
He just writes what he wants and it’s always going to be a little funny because of his takes on things. But I don’t think he overthought it. I think he just wanted to write a dramatic piece, and the humor came very
naturally. Louis and I have very similar senses of humor. When we watched everything back, we would laugh at dramatic parts because it would be so weird, these characters saying what they’re saying and that this is a TV show. I think in regards to balancing it, it just came naturally to him.
Did you have many notes for Louis?
I was there mostly to make sure the shots were correct, so he didn’t have to be the technical director as much as directing the actors. I was in the control booth making sure everything looked good. Every once in a
while he’d ask about performances. The cast was so good. One of the tougher ones was the third episode, with Laurie Metcalf’s huge monologue. She was great, but had several different ways of doing it, per Louie’s direction.
What do you make of how Louis did this? You can truly bypass traditional distribution models now.
It really inspired me. When I got off that show, I came back to my studio and wrote a whole screenplay, and didn’t worry about whether it was commercial. I’ve got my own studio, I can try to make it myself! It’s a
cheap idea and I think I could probably get it together. That whole process inspired me in a big way.
What’s the status of it?
It’s a smaller movie, a dark comedy. I just finished writing a first draft. I’m giving it to my agent and we’re looking for a director. We would want to distribute it ourselves. It’s a small independent movie and I
don’t think we’re going to get huge distribution anyway. It’s a huge first step to do something independently. We did “Anomalisa” but had to get Paramount on board.
This idea of ultimate creative freedom, that’s the dream, right?
Yeah, it’s a real learning experience. You realize it’s a business too and you’ve got to make some money. You can’t be totally in the red all the time. But I know the mission statement of our studio is creativity
above all else. Let the creators make what they set out to make. Even us as a studio with “Anomalisa” it was all Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Letting them do what they needed to do. Luckily we had Charlie as a big name and Dan Harmon, so it wasn’t that difficult to get more money. For our next movie, we acquired the script for “Bubbles,” the Michael Jackson story through they eyes of the chimp. It’s an amazing script.
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